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Lord of the Rings

Elvenminstrel's review of the movie
The Fellowship of the Ring

-January 01, 2002

I've seen Fellowship of the Ring twice, and will almost certainly go again. The first time I saw it, on opening day, all I could think about was how the film was different from the book. It felt to me like they were rushing from scene to scene. My wife and friends that I went with did not experience that, though, and enjoyed it a great deal.

When I saw it for the second time, the day after Christmas and in a different theatre, I enjoyed it a lot more, since my expectations had been framed appropriately. The second viewing had audio in Dolby surround format instead of THX, and sounded much better, for some reason. The localization of sound effects was better, and the sound was cleaner and richer. Boromir's horn, which had sounded pitiful and comical in the THX theatre, was more noble and authentic in Dolby. Of course, it may be the theatre's fault, not George Lucas'.

    Overall, my impressions are that Jackson captured the visual details of Middle-earth extremely well, except in a small handful of cases. While he (necessarily) took liberties with the story line, he followed Tolkien's maps in precise detail, and descriptions of most places also with fanatical precision. He succeeded in making an action film out of a story that has a different purpose altogether.

    What I didn't like. There was one place that looked so different that it has been widely criticized by Tolkien fans: Lothlorien, the woodland home of Galadriel and her elves. The film depicted it as a dark and spooky place, while the book describes it as a place of great golden light; even at night, gold, green, and silver lamps shone everywhere. It was a place of mythical beauty such as can hardly be conceived of, not a place of twisted roots and murky shadows as the film portrays. Accordingly, they presented Galadriel as a rather dark-spirited, spooky woman in the film, whereas the book presents her as preeminently gentle and loving, matronly in spirit, even though great in power and wisdom. Where her beauty and gentleness are tainted, it is not with horror (as the film showed her eyes getting big and spooky when she silently greeted Frodo) but with indescribably deep sadness and longing.

There's one thing in the film that will always make me shake my head, cluck my tongue, and roll my eyes. I know why they did it (the kids 'll dig it) but I still wish they hadn't. That's the Mortal Kombat™ scene between Saruman and Gandalf. Sheesh. It was entirely made up and inserted; after Gandalf refuses to help Saruman find and use the One Ring, the book says simply, "They took me and set me alone on the pinnacle of Orthanc." So there's a few minutes they could have used for something faithful to the text. Saruman's great power was not in casting spells with a magic staff, but in persuasive speech, in his smooth and beguiling tongue, contrasting with Gandalf's tendency to have a sharp tongue. Middle-earth is simply not a place where battles are fought chiefly by the exchange of magic spells. "Magic" is there, in the sense of some characters' abilities to make use of natural forces in ways that observers don't necessarily understand. But it's not like Dungeons and Dragons. Worse, such a portrayal misses the opportunity to convey Tolkien's anti-humanistic view that the truth is not necessarily that which sounds most pleasing, but is often hard to hear, even offensive; also that you know evil words not by how they are spoken but by judging their content according to sound principle.

I understand why they expanded Arwen's role, and why many changes had to be made to keep the film short enough and to keep the action moving. But there are some changes I don't understand.

  • In the book, it was Gandalf for taking the Moria road and Aragorn against, not Gimli for and Gandalf against. Why change it?
  • The power of Mt. Caradhras to snow the party in was attributed in the book to either the mountain itself, having no connection to the ring, or to Sauron's increasing power; it's intentionally left unclear. Why attribute it to Saruman in the film?
  • When Frodo tried to leave the party and go to Mordor by himself, and Sam caught up to him, he was wearing the ring and was invisible until Sam was safely out of the water. Why change that?

The music was OK, if merely perfunctory. It did it's job without getting in the way. But it falls far short of the great scores for classics films of epic tales like The Exodus and The Ten Commandments. It was the perfect kind of film for such a score, so they missed a great opportunity, IMO. The music seemed to have no memorable themes at all. Nothing to leave the theater whistling.

    What I did like was that Jackson wisely and deftly avoided most scenes that could have been controversial to portray. Tolkien was adept at using words to create scenes in the reader's imagination that simply cannot translate into a literal visual medium without great loss. An example would be the darkening of the porch where the Council of Elrond took place when Gandalf uttered the words of the ring inscription in the original tongue of Mordor. From the book, it's not entirely clear what "happened" due to the use of the word "seemed." Did the light "actually" diminish? Was it only perceived? Did the speaking of the words "cause" it, perception or reality? It's actually the absence of the answer that sets the intended mood and causes the appropriate fear of evil in the reader. If a filmmaker tried to show that happening, it wouldn't work at all. It would look silly at worst and confusing at best. Much of LotR is that way, so Jackson had to pick his scenes very carefully, and modify those he couldn't avoid in such a way as to maintain believability. In my opinion, he succeeded brilliantly. But even his success confirms that film is not the strongest medium for such a tale.

One thing very well done in the film was the pronunciation of names and of elven words: everything was virtually perfect. The accents seemed natural, too. The animations of the 1970s had failed in that respect.

The actors were mostly well cast, I thought. Bilbo delivered his lines most movingly. Gandalf was dead-on, curing the Eeyore-like delivery of the Hobbit animation; McKellen was hard to understand at times, odd for an old stage actor. I think they may have picked Mortensen for Aragorn because he could look like Jesus. I picture Aragorn as being larger and more square-jawed than the triangular-faced Mortensen. But he pulled off the part quite convincingly. Sam was brilliant. Galadriel had just the right look, as far as face, shape, graceful movement, and costume go.

The others were all very good, but I wasn't too happy with Elrond; while his basic face shape seems right, Hugo Weaving looks kind of rough and criminal to me, and his delivery has a hardness and spit that I don't see in the Elrond of the literature at all. He didn't come across to me as someone who has led a group of noble elves wisely for thousands of years and now maintains a beautiful, healing, restful outpost hidden in the hills. He didn't seem to fit his own house. He was quite good in the battle scenes of the Prologue, though.

The visual detail is the film's greatest triumph, overall. The Shire is perfect, heart warming and lovely, rustic and homey, and yet pleasantly strange. Bilbo's birthday party was perfect (there, the music stood out well). The tree they used for the hobbits to hide under when they first encountered the black rider is so much like the one drawn years ago by John Howe that it's downright scary. The Prancing Pony Inn, perfect. The look of Strider sitting in the corner looking shadowy and dangerous: perfect.

Rivendell is one of those places that was described more in terms of how it felt than how it looked, so there are as many Rivendells as there are readers; but the one Jackson portrayed doesn't conflict with the book in any way I can see. While it looked more bizarre and less comfortable than I imagined, and also more Greek and less magical, it didn't take me long to accept it as a valid interpretation. It's a remarkable fantasy place in its own right, in any case.

The lands between Rivendell and Moria: unbelievably perfect. Moria itself could not have been better done, except that they had to omit parts of it to keep the action moving (Balin's tomb was actually a ways from the great hall, and the party escaped from it through a back door, not back through the hall). The breaking stair case scenes, while made up and inserted, were a thrilling replacement for action elsewhere in Moria in the book. The balrog, which no artist heretofore had ever convincingly captured visually, was the crowning achievement, beyond what would have been thought to be perfection. It was completely convincing and dead-on Tolkien's descriptions. The orcs are perfectly horrifying and completely believable. The Argonath (giant stone kings on the river) could not have been better, and the giant stone foot at water level was a great touch. The broad river area around the island above Rauros Falls was exactly according to the book, unbelievably perfect. The Emyn Muil (brown lands on the East side of the river) over looking the Dead Lands and on towards Mordor were, once again, absolutely perfect.

I'm looking forward to the next two.

David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL, USA

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